Thinking Deeper

Port Aransas beach


Is the Gulf of Mexico Really Worth Saving?

The Dollars Sense and Conservation

Is the Gulf of Mexico really worth saving? It may seem a rhetorical question and one meant only to provoke a response, but there are times I believe some may seriously contemplate it. The most difficult and frustrating task for conservation-minded individuals and organizations that do think it is worth the effort, is conveying their values to the disinterested and unaware. Making that connection without appearing condescending or sermonizing is a challenge seldom met, but when it happens, impressive things can result. I think that is because people do want to do the right thing, if only they can understand why it is important and how it affects them. Sometimes it takes a sledgehammer, like Rachel Carson's Silent Spring that launched the modern environmental movement, but often making that connection is more subtle and thus more frustrating, but no less important. Something the size of the Gulf of Mexico needs a sledgehammer blow, like Deepwater Horizon, to wake us up to what we have to lose and the fact that it is within our capacity to set a chain of mistakes into motion that generates a threat on that scale.

We all want a healthy and productive Gulf of Mexico and we want to continue to use it as we always have done. That may not be possible. We have seen the signs of declining health that have little or nothing to do with oil spills: hypoxic zones, harmful algal blooms and overfishing. We clearly have valued derived benefits from the Gulf at the expense of its overall health. How we change that perspective may be the key to its future.

We Protect What We Value

How we place value on the Gulf and the concept of ecosystem health is daunting. We are, by definition, surrounded by and immersed within the world in which we live and we take ecosystem health for granted because we cannot imagine otherwise. We have seldom known anything else, except when something like Deepwater Horizon hits us up beside the head. We expect our rivers and bays to clean up the wastes we dump into them by intention or by accident; they always have done so. We expect the forests and wetlands that border our towns and cities to exist; they have always been there. We expect to catch and eat fish and shrimp because we have always done so. Because we have always done so, we as a society have placed little or no value on these "ecosystem services", and now we may have to pay the price for that neglect.

Gulf Intercoastal Waterway

Ecosystem Services Lost

We have destroyed half of the coastal wetlands in the Gulf of Mexico. That is nothing to brag about, but no worse than what has happened in the majority of the USA. Coastal development, channelization, and subsidence have all been major contributors this loss. Mostly it has happened incrementally, with little thought to the cumulative impacts that are as important to the ecosystem as a whole. Like a game of pick up sticks, we have continued to move one stick after another, knowing it will eventually collapse the pile, but we are surprised when it actually happens. We have, in fact, allowed for the orderly destruction of wetlands because we valued the conversion of those areas to houses, refineries, resorts, etc. as generating what we have generally perceived as greater value to society. Katrina, Rita, and Ike demonstrated the value of what we gave up. Natural barriers to storms that these wetlands provided were sorely missed and cost society millions of dollars and lives lost. We now know the value of natural infrastructure. Think what would happen to your own home in a hurricane, if you removed half the framing over which it was built. We have done that to our Gulf wetlands.

The hurricanes vividly illustrated what the loss of healthy coastal wetlands mean to moderating erosion and storm surge and has brought into focus water quality concerns, as well as, the diversion and manipulation of freshwater resources in these areas. One reason the storms were so devastating was the lack of natural wetland barriers that would have otherwise buffered the impacts of the storms. It is estimated that for every four miles of wetlands, storm surge is reduced by a foot. In the flat coastal plains that surround the gulf any reduction in storm surge represents a significant reduction in damage and even the loss of life. What one sows one also reaps. Some of the hard learned lessons of those hurricanes were the realization that coastal wetlands are not just for the birds and fish, we need them as well. Their loss can be equated in millions of dollars and lives lost.

Less dramatic but of equal importance is the fact that we depend on healthy ecosystems to clean our wastes and treat our pollution: a valuable service. We even have a formal permitting process at both state and federal levels that allows and depends upon these ecosystem services. It is ironic that we have similar programs that potentially threatens that ecosystem health by diverting water from those rivers and bays, but that is another story. Throughout the Gulf, as with just about anywhere in the USA, we treat the wastewater that flushes and drains from our homes and businesses to what is called a secondary level. That is not sufficient quality to recycle it into water plants, treat it and use it again. To do that would take tertiary treatment and that is really expensive, too much so for cities to consider. Everyone depends on healthy ecosystems to provide that service for "free". We dump our wastewater and industrial wastes into our rivers and bays, partially treated. A healthy and functioning aquatic ecosystem then assimilates and "treats" those wastes. Natural processing annually saves us millions of dollars. Because these systems can assimilate these wastes and maintain health and productivity, much of our coastlines have remained open to fishing, swimming and recreation, generating billions of dollars in economic benefits.

Nonetheless, we take that for granted and pour more and more waste into these systems, and at the same time divert freshwater away for other uses to generate even more waste. How much longer that can continue is not clear, but more and more beaches are closed and in greater areas of our bays shellfish harvest is banned and more advisories are issued for consumption of fish. We are finding out that these services are not free, and if we do not pay the bill to keep them healthy, the cost will be more than we anticipated.

Ecosystem Services in Dollars and Cents

One way to appreciate the value of ecosystem services is to assign a dollar value. It can be a dangerous exercise if that value is not reflective of what something is really worth. Think about yourself. How much are you worth? The U.S. government (depending on the agency) values your life at between $3 and $6 million. If you consider only our basic chemical constituents, your body is about $4.50. Do you think either truly captures the value of your life? I doubt it. We face the same difficulty in valuing ecosystems.

Nonetheless, it is an important exercise because the economic framework is one in which our political leadership and the policy-makers that support them, are comfortable. It is a framework within which nearly all other issue come before them and can be understood by them, and most of us. Decision-makers have a difficult job, if they are truly weighing options as to the best policy course. The common denominator of economic value is one way, and in our society today the most accepted means of doing so. Why else would a government agency actually try and put a value on your life?

Port Aransas beach

Value Beyond Measure

The Gulf of Mexico is a big ecosystem and assessing the services it provides on an appropriate scale is all but impossible. Some values of the Gulf ecosystem are easily translated into economic terms we can all understand. Commercial fisheries landings, tourist expenditures, oil and gas production, etc, all generate benefits readily measured in dollars. These are direct measurements of ecosystem health and productivity, but they do not tell the whole story.

The indirect values of a healthy Gulf are not so easily defined, but may be of even greater importance to us, both now and for the future. What if we had to pay for that tertiary water treatment? How important is it that the Gulf, fifty or a hundred years from now is as healthy and productive as it is now? Most of us have a strong desire to make sure that future generations have at least some of what we have come to enjoy. As a society we will have to make some difficult calls, and how we value the Gulf ecosystem in the context of other demands will be important. If we cannot express that value, termed "bequest value" by economists, in a meaningful way we cannot expect to leave for our children something as good as, or better, than we enjoy.

Another form of indirect value is related to maintaining future options. It is always a wise course to keep options open as long as possible, especially when it is difficult or impossible to reverse your decision. Once you lose ground on the scale of the Gulf, it is difficult to reverse course. We are not smart enough to understand all of the benefits a healthy Gulf provides. We do not know what we will need of the Gulf in the future. Before we take actions that diminish capacity or resiliency, we need to carefully consider what effect that action could have and weigh the value of options lost.

Bequest values and options values are the indirect values so difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify when assessing ecosystem values. The one thing we do know is that when they are gone, they are priceless.

Common Grounds and Common Sense

A commons in the old English sense was a piece of property, usually a pasture, that was held or owned by all in the community and which could be used by any and all. The commons provided a valuable service to the whole but because it belonged to no one, and everyone, commons were often abused. It was such a frequent outcome that a parable arose around it and came to be known as the "tragedy of the commons". As implied in the allegory, those things which we hold in common most often suffer in contrast to those which we hold individually. The Gulf of Mexico is one of our modern commons, and we seem to be playing that English parable, all over again.

It is fundamental to the success of HRI that we foster a sense of ownership of the Gulf of Mexico on the broadest base possible. The economic engine that is the Gulf of Mexico is vital to the economic health of the countries that surround it. Efforts to ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem framework, of which we are all a part, makes it imperative we develop the appreciation for, and a will to act, in consideration of that value.


 — A Message From HRI Executive Director Dr. Larry McKinney